The Cratering Ratings of 97.1

It’s never been a secret that the ratings success of WXYT-FM (97.1 “The Ticket”) has always been propelled by the Detroit Tigers broadcast rights.

Anyone who has followed the Detroit sports radio scene over the last 25 years can point to two factors as to why 97.1 became a juggernaut in this market and they have very little to do with on-air “talent.” It is no coincidence that the Arbitron success of WXYT coincided with the station’s move from the AM dial (1270) to FM back in 2007 after Howard Stern took his talents to Sirius satellite.

The King of All Media’s departure from 97.1 as a syndicated entity left a gaping hole for CBS Radio at the time and executives wisely moved their sports operation from the awful AM signal to the crystal clear FM band.  For years, the employees of WDFN-1130 implored management at Clear Channel to do the same and switch them to 106.7 but their pleas fell on deaf ears.

The Tigers renaissance that had begun a year earlier — culminating in a World Series trip —coupled with WXYT’s move to FM was the death knell for ‘DFN. The eventual funeral occurred on January 20, 2009 when “The Fan” fired Michael Stone and Bob Wojnowski. At one point the “Stoney and Wojo” program was the #1-rated in the market for the key 25- to 54-year-old male demographic.

And not for just sports. The entire market. And that was accomplished on a signal that sounded like something Marconi created on the second day of the medium.

But the 1-2 punch of both Tigers baseball and the FM signal for their competition murdered WDFN. Over the last decade plus the on-air staff has mostly migrated from 1130 to 97.1 “The Ticket” with WXYT developing into a major player in Detroit radio.

The Tigers have been the lynchpin of 97.1’s success. The era of Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, Max Scherzer, J.D. Martinez, Carlos Guillen, Magglio Ordonez and Pudge Rodriguez has been an absolute boon for CBS Radio and now Entercom.

Not only were the ratings extremely high for the team’s games while they annually competed for a World Series championship while “Owning the Central”, but the carryover effect of waking up in the morning and driving to work with 97.1 on from the previous night’s Tigers/Indians tilt was invaluable.

No one understood this better than 97.1’s competition which is why Greater Media took a humungous swing at the broadcast rights for the Tigers during the dying days of Detroit Sports 105.1.

The only entity to ever challenge WXYT-FM’s sports radio dominance on the FM dial was the radio conglomerate that also owned WRIF and WCSX. But they couldn’t make a dent in the 97.1 ratings via their weekday programming so they made a play for the Tigers in 2016.

In fact, Greater Media actually outbid CBS Radio for the rights. And according to various published reports, CBS went back to the Tigers after the process and offered more money than 105.1, thus “stealing” back the team’s radio package in what Greater Media employees thought was an underhanded maneuver.

When this was all going down, I spoke to several people who worked for both Greater Media and CBS Radio, plus various media members who also covered this beat. They all agreed on one thing. The only way Greater Media was going to remain an all-sports station was if they landed the crucial Tigers ratings.

There was no backup plan even though 97.1’s Mike Valenti was on the verge of becoming a free-agent. The execs at GM didn’t think a Valenti move from 97.1 to 105.1 would budge the needle. They thought only Detroit’s baseball team could do the trick. GM never even made an offer to Valenti.

That is how important everyone in this town felt the Tigers broadcast rights were. Of course, at the time the team was still owned by Mike Ilitch. And that 2016 team remained in contention for a playoff berth until the last day of the regular season with a Opening Day payroll of $172 million (making the team the 4th biggest spender in MLB that year).

And while Ilitch’s health was always an open question over the last decade due to a cancer diagnosis, it didn’t appear that either CBS or GM ever considered what a post- Mike Ilitch era would look like at Comerica Park.

Of course, Mike died in February of 2017 — just eight months after CBS swooped in to retain the Tigers radio rights. And since then, boy wonder Chris Ilitch has decimated the on-field product under the guise of a rebuild by slashing payroll by nearly $60 million.

The move to rebuild while forsaking any semblance of foreseeable competitiveness has had a chilling impact on the team’s business and their partners. In the last year of Mike’s life, the franchise averaged 31,173 fans a game at Comerica Park. This season — the first year completely under Chris’ austerity measures — the team is averaging 22,766 per contest.  That’s a precipitous drop of 27 percent!!!

And the team’s TV ratings over at Fox Sports Detroit are even worse. According to this report from Crain’s Detroit Business, the station’s ratings are down a whopping 44 percent from last season. And it’s not like the 2017 team set the world on fire. Verlander, JD and Justin Upton were all dumped during the summer and the team had the WORST RECORD IN ALL OF BASEBALL.

Whoa! That’s ugly.

So, considering attendance is down 27 percent and TV viewership has fallen off 44 percent, you are probably wondering how the ratings are at 97.1. Well, I am glad you asked because that situation might be even bleaker.

For comparison sake, let’s look at 97.1’s ratings back in the summer and fall of 2014 …..

….. and 97.1 ratings during the baseball season in 2016 …..

As you can see, WXYT-FM was the #1 overall rated in the Motor City. Constantly putting up a number of between 7.2 and 7.4 while Tigers baseball was airing. The station was an absolute powerhouse.

So what’s going on in 2018? ………

Oy vey!!!!! Those figures are more disturbing than the thought of Scott Anderson in a Speedo. WXYT-FM has fallen from its top perch all the way to NINTH!!!! A 35 percent drop in the market!!!!!!

For years, the staff at 97.1 tried to mock ANYONE who claimed the station was built on the back of the Tigers. So can someone explain to me why the channel’s listenership has cratered at a rate similar to the Tigers attendance and TV ratings?

A 4.7 in July?!?!!? These numbers are worse than the station’s winter ratings when they don’t have the Tigers as a crutch so one can only imagine how bad things will get in January and February.

Keep in mind that these numbers have bottomed out while 97.1 has absolutely ZERO competition. There is no other sports talk radio station on the FM dial and there doesn’t seem to be one on the horizon.

WXYT-FM has been on auto-pilot for a decade. Does anyone know if program director Jimmy Powers still has a pulse? Year after year, this do-nothing has been buoyed by Mike Ilitch’s pocketbook. Hell, he was so dependent on “Mr. I” that he should have been considered Mike’s eighth child.

But now, Mike is gone…along with JV, Max, JD, Upton, Ian Kinsler and ANY hope that this team will be good for AT LEAST three seasons. (I will update you on the disaster of the rebuild later this week so you might want to start self-medicating tuh-tuh-tuh day, Junior.)

It’s really shocking that the “wizard” behind the curtain wasn’t Doug Karsch, a virginal Whale, Jamie Samuelsen, Pat Caputo, Dan Leach and the cackling Valenti sycophants.

97.1 is in serious trouble and if they think Chris Ilitch, Al Avila and Ron Gardenhire are going to bail them out of this mess they probably have another thing coming.

Someone better pull Powers off the golf course.